Expert discusses animal researchers’ bias

Medical testing upon non-human animals is a topic that often inflames passions. Evidence of this has been quite apparent here at the University during the last couple of weeks. A recent Daily editorial, as well as an opinion article by Kristin Schreiber and Paul Wacnik, have come out in support of the practice of vivisection. Unfortunately, both of these gloss over, ignore or misstate a number of important issues.
The Animal Welfare Act as a rhetorical device
Much has been made of the supposed protections afforded laboratory animals by the grossly misnamed Animal Welfare Act. At first glance, the layperson is likely to view this act as providing for the interests of the animal. A closer inspection, however, reveals that this is far from the truth. The primary benefits of the AWA accrue to researchers who invoke it as rhetorical cover. The practical benefits to the creatures upon whom the vivisectors’ livelihood depends are few and far between.
In their defense of vivisection, Schreiber and Wacnik conveniently neglect to tell the reader that the majority of animals used for research are not covered under the AWA; the definition of “animal” currently used in the act intentionally excludes birds, reptiles and rodents (including the ubiquitous lab rat). Such an “oversight” is especially ironic considering that the group to which the students belong is known by the acronym FACTS.
Even for those animals covered by the AWA, protection is minimal. Exceptions to the prohibitions of certain acts, including those causing pain, are granted in the case of necessity. Who defines necessity? The same individuals for whom the act provides regulation: the researchers.
Validity, necessity and the use of animal models
Perhaps the most potent rhetorical weapon in the arsenal of the supporters of vivisection is the claim that animal research is necessary for the advancement of medicine. Ending animal research, we are told, “would mean the end of meaningful biomedical progress.” Concomitantly, we are told that animal models are superior to all available alternatives, and we are regaled with stories of cures that have been discovered and Nobel prizes that have been awarded on the basis of animal research.
Let me state that I accept that some advances have been realized through medical experimentation upon animals; to do otherwise would be disingenuous. That progress has been made using such techniques does not, however, mean that those techniques were essential. To argue that they are is to commit a logical fallacy known as an appeal to ignorance: holding claims to be valid simply because they are not known to be false.
The heady claims of the research community notwithstanding, animal research is far from infallible. While the supporters of vivisection, including the Daily’s editorial board, are quick to trumpet the “significant contributions” of vivisection, they remain suspiciously silent with respect to its failures.
By 1963, human studies had already shown a strong correlation between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Experimentation upon animals, however, had failed to produce confirmatory results. In fact, Clarence Little, a leading cancer animal researcher, wrote that 50 years of failure using animals cast “serious doubt on the validity of the cigarette-lung cancer theory.” In the face of this discrepancy, researchers chose to believe the animal models. This delayed the implementation of health warnings for years and might have cost thousands of lives.
This is far from the only failure. Tests on monkeys led to a misunderstanding of polio infection. The development of tissue culture methodologies critical to the discovery of the vaccine was delayed due to tests on monkeys which falsely suggested that poliovirus infects only the nervous system. Human cells were needed to discover that the virus could be cultivated in non-neural tissue.
Still more examples exist. The accepted relationship between alcohol consumption and cirrhosis of the liver in humans has been unreproduceable in other animals except baboons and those results are inconsistent. Contradictory findings in animal studies have delayed warnings about the dangers of radiation from diagnostic X-rays despite clear risks demonstrated in studies of human populations. The contributions of animal studies to AIDS research have not been significant due to the inability to develop symptoms of the disease in other creatures. Those immunodifficiency syndromes that have been produced differ substantially from AIDS in viral structure, disease symptoms and disease progression. Likewise, animal models have contributed relatively little to the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Huntington’s chorea.
“Shock value” and emotional appeals
Supporters of animal research often profess to be rational and logical while suggesting that the opposition is emotional and relies on “shock value” rather than data. I have done research on the process of claims-making by groups on both sides of the debate and can attest to the fact that neither side has a monopoly on rationality. Both supporters and opponents of vivisection make use of images designed for emotional appeal. One side presents an image of a little girl who supposedly “owes her life” to animal models; the other side shows a picture of a rhesus monkey screaming in pain. The use of such images is understandable given their power to convey a desired message. Even when the opponents of vivisection try to engage supporters in “rational” debate, they are likely to encounter little but hostility.
As a final note, I wish to point out that concern for the rights and welfare of animals does not imply a lack of concern for humans. In my study of the animal rights movement, I have met many caring and committed individuals who also spend time working on other issues such as homelessness, domestic abuse or poverty. Compassion need not be compartmentalized.

Corwin R. Kruse is an instructor and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology.